In part 1 of this blog series I considered just how weird it was that the early Church made so many copies of the New Testament. Their motivation lay in the content of the New Testament which is centrally focused on the person of Jesus.
What’s the deal with Jesus, anyway? Was he really so great?
Actually, no he wasn’t. At least not “great” by the usual standards.
Let’s take a look at this from a strictly historical perspective; ignoring any religious interpretations.
How to summarize his life? Well, he never ruled a country. He never taught at any great school of philosophy. He never led any army to great victory in battle. He never made any great discoveries of medicine or technology. As far as we know he never wrote any books. In short, if we were to make a list of all the typical reasons people get excited about somebody, he didn’t have any of those reasons.
Instead he wandered around a very small chunk of the Middle East we call Israel, teaching people about God and calling them to join his “kingdom.” It is claimed he regularly performed miracles, if you can believe that. I guess that part would be pretty spectacular, but that’s hardly likely to inspire people who never met him in person. He may have healed the sick, great, but he’s not around any more and I’m dying; what good does that do me? If anything, that might motivate people during his lifetime, but it would hardly motivate anybody after his death.
And it certainly wouldn’t inspire people to tenaciously copy the New Testament tens of thousands of times, as I described in the previous post.
No, even miracles like those reported of Jesus would not be enough to inspire that level of weirdness out of his followers. In short, there was virtually nothing about Jesus’ life that would give us any reason to see him as more than a strange footnote in the annals of history. Certainly nothing that would inspire massive expansion of the religion founded in his name, and massive transcription of the records of his life and the early church.
But it gets weirder. Not only did he never really do anything particularly spectacular (by our usual standards), he was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers, interrogated, tortured and ultimately executed in the most shameful and dehumanizing manner possible. His life was ended abruptly and in a manner that was specifically designed to disband any devotees he might have.
And here’s the extra weird thing; his followers did disband! The New Testament actually records that his followers either betrayed him, disowned him, or cowered in fear following his execution. The movement was over. Finished. Done.
Please understand that I’m only reporting those facts of history which would be widely accepted by historians of all persuasions. This is by no means a “religious” investigation of Jesus. What I just described is widely accepted as factual history. Jesus was a relative nobody in a relatively obscure part of the Roman Empire, with an altogether brief three-year ministry that ended in his dishonourable execution and the disbanding of his followers.
Nobody disputes these facts and, surprisingly, the New Testament doesn’t shy away from these same facts! It does not sugar-coat these facts, nor does it downplay them. Surprisingly, it actually goes out of its was to highlight some of these same facts, like Jesus’ dishonourable and torturous execution.
Yet this New Testament that describes Jesus’ obscure and violently terminated life took off like hot cakes and people flocked to follow Jesus. Even though he wasn’t around anymore. Even though he was executed. Even though his followers
What the heck? Tell me that isn’t weird!
All of these embarrassing little details about his unfaithful followers are not exactly hidden in footnotes in the Gospels. Even his execution is not some sad note, begrudgingly acknowledged, regarding the end of his life. On the contrary, his execution and the disbanding of his followers takes up a very significant part of each of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In short, the worst part of his life, and the biggest reason to scoff at those who committed their lives to him, ends up playing a front-and-center role in the New Testament. The last week of his life – that part of his life which is the most “embarrassing” to his cause – takes up about one quarter of each of the Gospels.
And, just to make things even more interesting, those pathetic followers of his who betrayed him and ditched him in his moment of greatest need – those who were cowering in fear in the hours and days following his execution – ended up being the leaders of the early Church. So this religion was based on an executed nobody whose followers were incompetent and unfaithful, yet they ended up becoming the bedrock for the new religion.
And those incompetent and unfaithful followers decided to write a book about the whole thing, specifically highlighting their incompetence and unfaithfulness. They didn’t hide it at all. When you read the Gospels you definitely get the sense that you aren’t dealing with the cream of the crop in terms of intelligence, character or what have you. They were something of idiots, they wrote a book showing that they were idiots, and these idiots were leaders of the new religion.
And they gathered followers. These idiots, pointing to their executed leader, gathered followers.
Tell me that isn’t weird.
And their followers took their book, and their executed leader, so seriously that they spread the religion and copied the book like there was no tomorrow. The copied it to the point where their book may was the ancient equivalent of a “best seller.”
Who does that? How could this possibly spark a new religion with these general features? On what possible, reasonable, grounds could this story serve as the soil from which a religion would blossom that would end up taking over the Roman Empire without any military intervention? How could this religion end up forming the philosophical and conceptual worldivew undergirding Western Civilization? If anything, this sounds more like the making of a “how not to start a religion” book.
- The founder was a nobody.
- The founder was from (and never left) an obscure part of the known world.
- The founder did little more than wander around teaching, and only for about three years.
- He was alleged to have performed miracles; ok, that’s something in his favour.
- The earliest followers were unfaithful and generally stupid.
- The founder was betrayed by one of his followers.
- The founder was executed.
- The earliest followers disbanded, fearing for their lives.
Then the religion exploded into the Roman Empire, eventually spreading across continents and taking over the known world.